The song begins with throbbing power chords and a caustic voice, plaintive but clear and strong. By the end of the first verse we know where we are: this is a power ballad ca. 1978, tweaked by one of the seminal punk bands of the age to flip the cheap play on our heartstrings (and pocketbooks) that characterized the ballad genre. This is not Kiss’s “Beth”, not Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, not even Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed”. Like other anthem retakes – Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” comes to mind – the song turns genre expectations upside down, a taunting celebration of the soulless, bloodless mating of the eponymous germ-free adolescents.
One thing, though, doesn’t fit the mold (either of ballad or anti-ballad): the voice is a woman’s. Poly Styrene (R.I.P.) was one of the fiercest, most iconoclastic vocalists of her age. And she had plenty of company. The British punk scene was especially – unexpectedly – welcoming to women vocalists. Why made the British music industry so receptive to women vocalists during the punk years? Why did the London scene embrace women’s take on dystopia – accepting even women fronting all-male outfits, like Poly Styrene and her X-Ray Spex? What did women have to say when they took the mike?
Join us at CES for a talk from Michigan’s own Karen Fournier (Assistant Professor in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance) on women and the British punk scene. Karen is at work on a monograph with the irresistible title Punk and Disorderly: Acting Out Gender and Class in Early British Punk. She will rock out this Thursday, March 8, at 4:00.